WASHINGTON - Tricia Rae Pendergrast, a first-year student at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, is joining the fight against the coronavirus by sourcing personal protective equipment, or PPE, to the front lines.
"This is not only your fight. I'm in this with you," said Pendergrast, in an interview with VOA, adding she hopes the doctors in the emergency rooms feel less alone.
It's been two weeks since Pendergrast and 140 other medical students in the Chicago area started a citywide donation drive to protect the medical workers. They have already distributed hundreds of masks and face shields, thousands of gowns and 38 liters of hand sanitizer to local hospitals. With donations through crowdsourcing platform GoFundMe amounting to $90,000, they're looking to buy 30,000 N95 masks, which filter out 95% of airborne particles.
Pendergrast said the distribution of protective gear will be based on need, COVID patient numbers and each hospital's funding situation. She voiced concerns about the strain on medical facilities that serve underprivileged people.
"This [coronavirus] crisis has really put the inequities that define our city on display, which is really sad," she said.
Dr. Lena Alia, an OB/GYN resident at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, said the facility faces a greater need than others.
"We're known as the largest safety net in the state of Illinois for Medicaid and Medicare patients. That does make it a little bit more difficult as our funding is usually already on a limited basis because we have lower-income patients," Alia said. To help her colleagues, she raised funds online and delivered 1,000 KN95 masks. KN95 is a Chinese standard for respirators that's almost identical to N95.
With just a few clicks, people can easily set up a crowdfunding campaign online. Among those hunting for mask donations, some raise tens of thousands of dollars in just a matter of days.
"The response has been phenomenal. I think what it really shows is that people want to help ... and not only are people giving money, I've learned so much about many aspects of this from people who are volunteering information," said Kara Dyer of Massachusetts.
Dyer raised $41,000 in six days and will bring in 20,000 KN95 masks from China next week. With her decadelong experience of running her own toy company, Dyer has navigated the fast-changing Chinese medical supply chain.
"I've been a little nervous because a lot of people are counting on me, but more than that, the doctors are counting on me, and I really want to be able to deliver for them," noted Dyer.
Some fundraisers face roadblocks along the way. Raising money seems easier than securing masks.
Tinisha Stone started a campaign on GoFundMe to get National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-standardized N95s from China.
The coronavirus outbreak was not yet serious in Austin, Texas, but she wanted to get ahead of the curve and prepare for a surge. Her husband is a doctor.
But on the day that her order of 3,000 masks was scheduled to be shipped, she received a message from her contact in China.
"The [mask] factory got shut down, surrounded by police. The government shut it down before they were able to send our supplies," Stone noted. "It's become extremely difficult to source the N95s now. And we're still working on it but it's been hard every day, all day, for the last 10 days," Stone said.
Stone says her contact in China is again offering to get supplies from the same factory if she can order more, at a higher price.
Stone says she will carry on with her mission.
"I just feel like I need to do what I promised that I was going to do or I need to get the money back [to the donors]. I don't want to give it back. I'd rather succeed and be able to help the health care workers in Austin."